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Low Milk Supply

Fact sheet for Health Care Professionals

Most mothers produce plenty (or sufficient) milk to meet their babys needs. Healthy
women in general can produce sufficient quantities of breastmilk and once
established breastmilk production is relatively constant over the first 6 months of
lactation (Wambach and Riordan, 2016).
While mothers are designed to breast feed successfully (West and Marasco, 2009,
p. xxi) there are a small number of women who unfortunately do not make enough

Breastmilk Production
Lactogenesis describes the multiple stage process during which the mammary gland
prepares to secrete milk, begins copious milk production, maintains production over
time, and involutes during weaning (Wilson-Clay and Hoover, 2013, p. 32). The
breast contains a number of lobes. Within each lobe is a network of alveoli which
contains milk making cells, ductules and then larger ducts or branches, which
transport the milk produced within the alveoli to the nipple openings. This is called
the functional or glandular tissue of the breast. There is much variability among
mothers in breast size and shape, and some mothers may lack sufficient glandular
tissue (breast hypoplasia) necessary to produce adequate milk supply. This can
occur in one or both breasts (Mohrbacher, 2010).

From puberty the hormones oestrogen and progesterone act to develop the ducts
and alveoli. Pregnancy causes a much larger increase in both of these hormones
including production of prolactin, human placental lactogen, human chorionic
gonadotrophin and growth hormone, which all contribute to act on the functional or
glandular tissue of the breast. Insulin, cortisol and thyroid hormones also stimulate
breast tissue development.

Prolactin is the hormone most responsible for producing breastmilk, it rises during
pregnancy and peaks at the birth of the baby (West and Marasco, 2009). There is
also the development of prolactin receptors in the breast in response to the early
sucking of the baby and frequent milk removal. The more the baby feeds the more
receptors are laid down in the breast and as the milk supply becomes established
the levels of prolactin reduce. The milk making process then changes from hormone
controlled (endocrine) to more local control (autocrine) (West and Marasco, 2009, p.
9). The golden rule of milk production according, to West and Marasco (2009, p.10),
is, the emptier the breast is kept, the harder the baby works to restock and the higher
the rate of production.

Lactogenesis Stage 1 and 2

Lactogenesis stage 1 is the early phase of milk production, the milk is called
colostrum, and it occurs during the second half of pregnancy (Wilson-Clay and
Hoover, 2013).

Lactogenesis stage 2 occurs 30-40 hours after the birth of the baby and is commonly
described as the milk coming in (Wilson-Clay and Hoover, 2013, p.32). When the
onset of copious lactation has not occurred by 72 hours, lactogenesis stage 2 is
characterised as delayed (Wilson-Clay and Hoover, 2013, p.32). The breastmilk
when lactogenesis occurs is lighter in colour, thinner and more watery than
colostrum (West and Marasco, 2009, p. 7). There is a gradual increase in breastmilk
volume which is ideal for the babys expanding stomach size. The early days of life
the babys stomach is the size of a cherry, and then over the next few days it is the
size of a walnut, then an apricot etc. See below Guidelines for mothers information
leaflet (HSE).

The babys stomach empties the breastmilk in approx 60 - 90 minutes (Wambach
and Riordan, 2016). Because of the babys stomach capacity and the rapid
emptying of breastmilk from his stomach, a baby will breastfeed many times by day
and by night (Wambach and Riordan, 2016), in the early weeks often 10 - 12 times
or more in the 24 hours. See above Guidelines for mothers information leaflet

Every time the baby sucks at the breast the hormone oxytocin is released by the
pituitary gland. This hormone causes the muscles around the alveoli to release
breastmilk. This is termed the milk ejection reflex or let down reflex or according to
West and Marasco (2009, p. 7) Natures Delivery System. This can be triggered
several times during a breastfeed and it is not only controlled by touch but also by
thoughts and feelings. If a mother has a history of breast surgery or injury this may

interfere also with the milk ejection reflex as there may be damage between the
nerve pathways between the brain and the breast (Mohrbacher, 2010).

Getting breastfeeding established takes a time investment and the first 40 days can
be challenging, this investment however is paid back many times (Mohrbacher and
Kendall-Tackett, 2010, p.105). It is really important that parents have realistic
expectations of the frequency of both day and night breastfeeds. Hence scheduling
feeds, use of formula supplements, pacifier use and other factors that reduce the
time the baby spends feeding at the breast may inhibit milk production (Wambach
and Riordan, 2016). Mothers need accurate, careful guidance in milk supply
calibration for the critically sensitive period during the first 2 weeks postpartum.
Failure to stimulate sufficiently during this phase may prevent these mothers from
establishing adequate lactation (Wilson-Clay and Hoover, 2013, p. 32). Perceived
insufficient milk supply is one of the main reasons for breastfeeding discontinuation
(Wood et al, 2016) and interventions that enhances a mothers knowledge about her
babys behaviour and how to respond to this behaviour will ultimately overcome
perceived insufficient milk and continue exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6
months (Wood et al, 2016, p. 306)

The 4 basic Dynamics of Milk Production (Mohrbacher, 2010, p.390)

Sufficient glandular/ functional breast tissue

+ Enough intact nerve pathways and milk ducts
+ Adequate hormones and functional hormone receptors
+ Frequent and effective milk removal and breast stimulation
= Ample milk production

The Causes of Reduced Milk Production (Walker, 2016, p.129)

Hormonal causes

Retained placenta that is failure of progesterone withdrawal, or reduced

prolactin release or other placental abnormalities such as increta
Gestational ovarian theca lutein cysts that elevate testosterone levels hence
suppressing milk production

Glandular causes

Surgical procedures
Insufficient mammary tissue

Post glandular

Ineffective or infrequent milk removal

Ineffective breastfeeding this would include babys oral anatomy (e.g. tongue
tie), birth injuries, breathing challenges, health or neurological issues
(Mohrbacher, 2010)
Caesarean birth
Peripartum complications hypertension, anaemia, excessive blood loss
Formula supplementation


Preterm birth
Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus
Gestational Diabetes
Metabolic status or health
Older maternal age
Excessive blood loss
Thyroid imbalance or disease
Polycystic Ovary Disease
Luteal phase defect (Mohrbacher, 2010).

Signs of good milk intake

Feeds are comfortable for mother, with no pain or nipple damage

Baby feeds 10 - 12 times or more in the 24 hours (during the early weeks)
then 8 - 12 times or more as baby gets a little older
Baby feeds actively for between 10-40 minutes (approximately)
Audible swallowing is often heard during the breastfeed however, swallowing
may be less audible until arrival of more milk on day 3-4 (Lactogenesis 2)
Baby is gaining weight, the average breastfed baby doubles his birth weight
by 5-6 months (Mohrbacher, 2010)
Wet nappies
Day 1 - 2 = 1 - 2 or more wet nappies
Day 3 - 4 = 3 or more, heavier wet nappies with pale coloured urine
Day 7+ = 6 or more, heavy wet nappies with pale coloured urine

Day 1 - 2 = 1 or more, black or dark green meconium stools
Day 3 - 4 = 2 or more changing stools, brown, green, yellow coloured
Day 7 = At least 2 large soft and seedy yellow stools
Baby is satisfied and content after many feeds

Signs of insufficient milk intake or possible low milk supply

Mother notices no breast changes or fullness in pregnancy (West and

Marasco, 2009)
Breastfeeds may take a long time with little intervals between feeds and baby
does not appear satisfied
Baby may sometimes sleep for longer than 3 - 4 hours at a time, or may tire
easily on the breast
Baby may appear thin and sometimes anxious looking
Urine is dark and concentrated
There is often inadequate or absent stooling
There may be slow weight gain with more than 7 % weight loss in the early
days after the birth and birth weight is not regained by 2 weeks of age. Some
degree of weight loss is common after birth. It is expected that babies will
regain their birth weight by day 10-14. Any loss greater than 10% of birth
weight requires a full breastfeeding evaluation.

Weight gain for the first three months: approximately 1oz (30g) per day or 6
oz (180g) per week (West and Marasco, 2009, p.30). Other more recent
references state even higher early weight gain 35g per day at 1 month
(Wambach and Riordan, 2016, p.674) and Walker (2016, p. 417) stated
between 2 and 6 weeks the average breastfed female infant is expected to
gain approximately 34g/day and the male breastfed infant should gain about
40g/day with the minimum expected gain for both boys and girls being about

In Ireland the Health Care Professional (HCP) uses a Growth Monitoring

Chart to record and track the babys individual growth pattern. On this chart
the babys weight, length and head circumference are recorded at regular
intervals to give an overall picture of their growth pattern. The current Growth
Monitoring Charts used in Ireland are accurate for breastfed babies. It is now
national policy that the World Health Organisation Child Growth Standards
(WHO 2006) are adopted and integrated into child health programming in
Ireland (HSE, 2012). This is the link to the section on growth monitoring on

Below is the expected weight gain for term infants based on the current WHO
growth charts. It relates to the infant/child who is growing along the

Average weekly weight Boys (g/week) Girls (g/week)

0-3 months 240 210
4-6 months 130 120
7-9months 80 75
10-12months 65 60

It can often be an extremely anxious and upsetting time for parents if the breastmilk
being produced is not sufficient and if their baby has signs of insufficient milk intake.
Mothers may feel many emotions such as anger, guilt, and sadness. It is really
important to allow the mother to acknowledge her feelings in a non judgmental and
empathetic environment. Breastfeeding can continue however if the mother decides
she would prefer to stop breastfeeding that too should be respected. The mother
should be supported to make the choice that works best for her. However that choice
should ideally be an informed decision. The following is the management strategy if
there are signs of insufficient milk intake or possible low milk supply

Milk Management Strategy

It would be necessary to refer the mother to specialised breastfeeding support if
there were signs of insufficient milk intake or possible low milk supply. The ideal
health care provider for breastfeeding support is an International Board Certified
Lactation (IBCLC). Some maternity units have Clinical Midwife/Nurse Specialists in
Lactation and some PHNs are also qualified IBCLCs. The health care professional
would undertake the history and assessment to support the milk management
strategy. The IBCLC would assist in helping to identify concerns and make a plan
with parents towards improved breastfeeding in conjunction with the health care

To find International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC)

The 3 rules for solving breastfeeding challenges include

Feed the baby

Protect the milk supply

Find and fix the problem (West and Marasco, 2009, p.37).

The milk management strategy involves the following:

1) Get a detailed history to ascertain if any of the above causes of reduced milk
production are present. This history taking involves mothers own history,
breastfeeding history, pain history (if applicable), and babys history
2) The mothers general appearance and nipples and breast need to be
examined. When inspecting the mothers breast and nipples, this is done with
her permission and ensure mother is treated with dignity and respect at all
3) Assessment of the baby should include his general condition and his weight. It
should also include an assessment of his oral anatomy and function of the
tongue (See Tongue Tie - Fact sheet for Health Care Professionals).
Evidence of palate abnormality and submucosal cleft should also be out ruled.

For further information please see

4) Correction of any of the above causes of reduced milk production should be

committed to, as a matter of urgency.
5) The following management according to Walker (2016, p. 644-650) includes
extra feedings, extra pumpings, pumping after a feed, improving babys
positioning and attachment at the breast (See Positioning and Attachment of
Baby to the Breast Fact sheet for Health Care Professionals). Kent et al
(2012) refers to optimal milk removal and frequent and thorough breast
6) Mothers are advised to massage alternate breasts while feeding to increase
milk transfer and production and also the use of breast massage while
pumping or expressing breastmilk
7) Feed the baby extra breast milk and this can be done by cup, bottle or tube
feeding device (under the care of a HCP).
If a babys weight gain or loss is low enough to be of concern the baby
should be given as much extra breastmilk as he will take whenever a
supplement is given (Mohrbacher, 2010, p.237). The volume a baby needs
per day to gain weight will, according to Mohrbacher (2010 p.236), vary by
age and by baby. A useful guide by Mohrbacher (2010, p.237) shows

milk intake per feeding and per day for the first 6 months of a babys life. It is
best, when giving the supplement to let the baby set the pace.

Babys Age Average Milk Volume Average Milk intake per

per Feeding Day
First Week after Day 4 1 - 2 ounces (30-59mls) 10 - 20 ounces
Weeks 2 and 3 2 - 3 ounces (59-89 mls) 15 - 25 ounces
Months 1 - 6 3 - 5 ounces (89- 25 - 35 ounces

It is important if possible to supplement the baby during day time hours

to allow the mother to rest at night in between breastfeeds
Give smaller volumes of supplements more often in order to enable
breastfeeding to continue
Gradually wean from supplements as milk production or babys
breastfeeding effectiveness improves (Mohrbacher, 2010).

8) Skin to skin contact (SSC) improves milk output by releasing oxytocin

9) Measures to help the milk ejection reflex include encouraging the mother to
hold her baby in SSC, have her babys unwashed blanket or clothing next to
her face. Listening to her babys sounds if her baby is near, or a recording of
her baby if baby is not nearby
10) Milk expression can be by either hand or pump or a combination of both. It is
important the mother is shown the technique of hand expression and also is
observed during the first pumping session to ensure her technique, the level
of suction of the pump and the fit of the flange of the attachment are all
correct. Warm compresses on the breast and a warmed flange further assists
milk removal
11) Milk expression may also involve power pumping. This firstly involves the
mother massaging her breast then using the pump for 5 - 10 minutes on both
breasts (in between breastfeeds) as often as possible, aiming for pumping at
least 10 times every day over a 2 - 3 day period (West and Marasco, 2009).
12) Encouraging the mother to use relaxation techniques including music,
visualisation, yoga etc
13) Mothers who smoke should be advised to quit or reduce (See Smoking and
Breastfeeding - A Factsheet for Health Care Professionals)
14) There is available both medicinal and herbal galactogues and according to
Wilson- Clay and Hoover (2013, p.33) a galactogue is a medication or an
herb believed to help initiate, maintain, or increase the rate of maternal milk
synthesis. Publications vary in terms of the recommendation of galactogue

use. According to The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) Clinical
Protocol # 9, galactogues should not replace effective breastfeeding

management for the mother and baby dyad where there is reduced milk
production, it also concludes (2011, p.43) Because current research of all
galactogogues is relatively inconclusive and all of the agents have potential
adverse effects, ABM cannot recommend any specific pharmacologic or
herbal galactogogues at this time. This protocol by ABM further recommends
that the HCP who does proceed to recommend a galactogue having
examined the risks versus the benefits, should follow the guidelines within that
protocol (Appendix : Specific Galactogogues)
There is according to West and Marasco (2009) lactogenic foods some of
which include almonds, coconut and sesame seeds which promote rich milk
while rice pudding with milk and sugar and pumpkin sunflower seeds may
increase production. Oatmeal is also popular as a lactogenic food.

Breastfeeding Support

It is important when a mother is breastfeeding her baby to receive good support.

There is a wide range of breastfeeding support available in Ireland offered by Public
Health Nurses, voluntary groups such as La Leche League, Cuidiu, Friends of
Breastfeeding (social support), Hospital clinics and International Board Certified
Lactation Consultant (IBCLCs). Links to nationwide support include:

Nationwide database of hospital, public health and voluntary breastfeeding support

References (accessed 23-11-16)

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Lawrence R and Lawrence R. Breastfeeding- A Guide for the Medical Profession.

8th Ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2016.

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Mohrbacher N and Kendall-Tackett K. Breastfeeding Made Simple. Seven Natural
Laws for Nursing Mothers. 2nd Ed. USA: New Harbinger Publications; 2010.

Mortel M and Mehta S. Systematic Review of the Efficacy of Herbal Galactogues.

Journal of Human Lactation. 2013; 29(2): p. 154-162.

The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Protocol Committee. ABM Clinical Protocol

#9: Use of Galactogogues in Initiating or Augmenting the Rate of Maternal Milk
Secretion. BREASTFEEDING MEDICINE. 2011; 6(1):p. 41-49.

Training Programme for Public Health Nurses and Doctors in Child Health
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